This blog is part of our series on how to write the college application supplemental essays. Check out our blogs on some of the other commonly asked questions, including those about “why us?,” community, creativity, and your activities.
Supplemental college essay prompts that ask about diversity have been around for years, but they are starting to pop up now more than ever. This recent shift came after instances of social injustice in the United States in 2020 and subsequent protests that heightened awareness of issues that plague our nation.
Some colleges and universities that had previously left out questions pertaining to diversity are now including them in their list of supplementals, while others are being more direct and intentional about how they ask about applicants’ backgrounds and their opinions on social justice issues.
Diversity prompts range from the general (“What unique perspective you will bring to our school?”) and indirect (“Tell us about your community and how this has inspired your goals and aspirations.”) to the straightforward (“Please describe your cultural identity and background.”).
Many students have often struggled with responding to the prompts, feeling uncomfortable talking about themselves and what makes them unique — which is understandable when you have grown up around a community of people who share similar identities, values, and experiences. Additionally, some now feel an added pressure to stand out or not discuss an identity that they deem to be uninteresting or even problematic.
So how do you write an essay that shows that you will add diversity to your dream school’s community and write about the topic in a way that comes off as interesting … when you don’t feel like you are?
What Do Colleges Mean by Diversity Anyway?
The first steps are to expand your idea of what diversity is and to not make assumptions about how others perceive you.
When most people hear the word “diversity,” they immediately think of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Some even expand their definition to include socioeconomic class and persons with disabilities. But what is diversity? In its simplest terms, it means variety, and when applied to people, that means a variety of backgrounds. When thought of in this way, the term can be expanded to include neurodiversity and learning differences and even to simpler-sounding topics such as academic interests, extracurricular activities, and family structure.
I know what you’re thinking: Why would a college care about the fact that someone may have been raised by their grandmother and aunt? This question comes from the assumption that colleges want diverse applicants so that students can be exposed to people that are different from them. Which is true, but there’s more to it. Learning about other cultures and ways of living does help to expand your cultural understanding, but the differences in opinions and perspectives are what really enhance students’ growth and learning.
What Are Colleges Looking For When They Ask About Diversity?
By being in classrooms with students who think differently from each other because of their differing experiences, students are challenged to think more deeply about their assumptions and the effects of their opinions and actions on others. They then consequently see that the world is more nuanced than they might have been exposed to growing up, which will help them be more empathic and critical moving forward.
With that in mind, you can begin to understand why a school would be interested in family structure, because a student who was raised in a traditional household may have a different idea of what family means and their relationship to it than does someone raised by their grandmother and aunt. You can also see why a STEM-focused school might be drawn to a ballet dancer whose interests in physics were piqued learning how their understanding of torque can improve their pirouette — whereas many others they’ve encountered may have written about their interests being inspired by their love for math and robots (which is not a bad thing! I just probably wouldn’t write about that for your diversity essay).
What can you do practically to get your diversity essay up and running? One brainstorming activity you can try is to make a mind map of your activities, hobbies, interests, and other aspects of your life that are important to you. Then connect the items that are similar. Take note of central themes as well as outliers and try to identify how the outliers came to be or how the central themes have branched out in so many directions.
When you understand that there is so much that goes into your identity and perspective and WHY that is important, then it will be easier to tackle the dreaded “diversity” question in your college application. It may take a bit of brainstorming and discussion with others, but by not focusing on what YOU think schools want in your response, you may realize that a combination of aspects of your identity, background, and interests make you more unique than you may think.